How’s that? With SBDMs Kentucky doesn’t really have any public schools?

Definitions from an Ed School prof makes it seem so

A recent Education Week article by Professor Sarah M. Stitzlein from the University of Cincinnati just caught my attention.

Stitzlein talks about “five responsibilities schools must meet to truly be called ‘public’.” Her third criterion is:

“They should be responsive to the public, enabling community members to vote out school officials or change school policies through meaningful and viable avenues like elections, referendums, and open school meetings.” (Note: “Community” is spelled correctly in the print edition of this article but the online version does have a typographical error)

So, community members in a real public school system – at least according to Stitzlein – should be able to vote out school officials and should also have control over school policies through elections and referendums. Citizens should also have free and easy access to school meetings, so those meetings need to be clearly and publicly announced.

Well, Kentucky’s current public school system, which doesn’t have any charter schools at present, flunks Stitzlein’s requirements.

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New ACT results show Common Core not meeting promises to many Kentucky’s students

New reports came out last week on the performance of 2017’s high school graduates across the country on the ACT college entrance test. A lot of folks are especially interested in the results for Kentucky because Common Core has been in place in the Bluegrass State longer than anywhere else. Thus, Kentucky has the longest trend line of relevant ACT scores in the country regarding how well Common Core has kept a major, frequently-heard promise (see for example here, here and here) that these standards would improve preparation for college. After all, if we are talking about college readiness, what more pertinent trend lines could there be? The ACT is designed to serve colleges first (not state educators) and the ACT explicitly reports about college readiness.

So, how do Kentucky’s ACT college readiness trends look?

To begin, keep in mind that Kentucky adopted Common Core – sight unseen – in February of 2010. Shortly thereafter, the state implemented Common Core-aligned testing in the 2011-12 school term. Thus, Common Core has been the classroom standard in Kentucky for more than half a decade. The state’s 2017 public high school graduates spent at least six years in classrooms impacted by the Common Core.

Figure 1, derived from data in the 2015 Kentucky Department of Education News Release 15-091 and the department’s 2017 News Release 17-114 shows the percentages of Kentucky’s public school graduates meeting the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education’s (CPE) ACT Benchmark Scores for College Readiness in English, math and reading from 2013 to 2017. Students meting those CPE ACT Benchmark Scores are admitted to credit bearing courses in Kentucky’s public postsecondary system in the related subjects without a requirement to take remedial courses. In other words, those students are deemed ready for college in that subject area, at least according to Kentucky’s educators.

Figure 1

Percent of 2013 to 2017 KY Grads Meeting CPE's ACT Benchmarks

A quick visual examination of Figure 1 shows Kentucky’s students initially made some progress in college readiness based on the ACT in the early years of Common Core. However, the small gains in both English and math actually started decay after 2015. For both English and math, the 2017 CPE Benchmark performances are lower than in 2015 and both are scarcely better than they were in 2013.

Reading appears to have trended somewhat better, but a careful inspection of the graph shows that even in this subject the rate of progress has slowed in more recent years. So, even in reading performance increases have come only very slowly. Worse, even the reading curve is starting to flatten.

For sure, the percentages of students meeting the CPE’s College Readiness Benchmarks in 2017 are disappointingly low in all three areas. When scarcely more than half of the state’s 2017 high school graduates read well enough to attempt college work without extra remedial training, the state obviously has a major problem that doesn’t seem to be improving much in the Common Core era.

When far fewer than one in two Kentucky high school graduates is ready for even the very lowest level credit bearing college math courses, the problem becomes much more severe.

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Bluegrass Beacon: Legislators boost, judge busts liberty

BluegrassBeaconLogoEditor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon column is a weekly syndicated statewide newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute website after being released to and published by newspapers statewide.


This edition of “Liberty Boosters and Busters” is brought to you by reasonable Kentuckians who reject racism, bigotry and censorship with every fiber of their freedom-loving beings.

Liberty Booster: The attorney general’s office decided in favor of the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government in its appeal challenging a Jefferson County school board meeting at a private law firm on the 28th floor of an office building in downtown Louisville on a Sunday afternoon in April.

Assistant Attorney General James Herrick ruled the meeting – held to discuss applicants for the district’s then-vacant interim superintendent’s position – violated the law requiring public agencies to conduct meetings “at specified times and places convenient to the public.”

It’s also likely the building was locked that day as it was on a subsequent Sunday when some of my colleagues at the institute tried to enter – an experience Herrick referenced in his ruling.

Liberty Buster: U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves allowed Eric Conn, the eastern Kentucky lawyer who pleaded guilty to engineering one of history’s largest Social Security fraud campaigns, to remain free on home incarceration – despite warnings against doing so by an FBI agent and witnesses claiming Conn had crossed 140 borders in eight years and had vowed to run before going to jail.

Conn ran, and likely is now sipping martinis and hanging out on the beach of some country with women for whom he previously claimed to have provided “English lessons,” and with whom the U.S. has no extradition treaty.

Yet Reeves, the judge, forced Sam Girod, an Amish farmer from rural Bath County, to remain in jail for months without bond while awaiting trial before handing him a harsh six-year prison sentence for the “crime” of mislabeling homemade herbal skin salves containing such dangerous (sarcasm dripping here) ingredients as chickweed and peppermint and not acquiescing to the Food and Drug Administration’s ideological thuggery.

Prosecutors, gung-ho though they were to destroy this man and ridicule his way of life, failed to produce a single victim harmed by Girod’s concoctions.

Yet Reeves permitted Conn, a wealthy white-collar criminal whose fraud resulted in 1,500 people losing their benefits and at least one person committing suicide, to remain out of jail.

He also handed a weak six-month sentence to Charlie Andrus, a former chief regional Social Security judge who pleaded guilty to conspiring with Conn to retaliate against the whistleblower in the campaign defrauding the program of $550 million.

Reeves in an unrelated case allowed a former University of Kentucky employee who swindled the school out of $200,000 to avoid prison altogether with a sentence of probation, calling it “sufficient punishment.”

Yet farmer Girod, who’s harmed no one and had no criminal record when his nightmare began, languishes in a Pennsylvania prison more than 400 miles away from his home.

An appeals-court reversal or presidential pardon would go a long way toward highlighting the insufficiency of this judge’s contemptible inconsistency.

Liberty Boosters: Gov. Bevin and Frankfort’s Republican legislative leaders for planning to tackle pension and tax reforms separately.

Claims that tax reform is critical to generating revenue wrongly blame Kentucky’s public pension woes on insufficient support from taxpayers or poor returns on investments or, at the very least, station the cart before the horse.

The retirement systems’ funding levels continue to fall even though the commonwealth’s current budget poured an additional $1.2 billion into them.

Also, investment returns for the past 30 years have, on average, exceeded more than 9 percent in the Kentucky Retirement Systems and 8 percent in the Teachers’ Retirement Systems.

At the core of the pension crisis is a structural weakness rather than lack of dollars.

Stop the digging by fixing the systems’ benefit structures.

Then, looking for more dirt to fill the hole becomes an exercise in productivity rather than futility.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at He can be reached at and @bipps on Twitter.

How does Kentucky rank against other states on the ACT?

This is a question we get asked frequently. Before we can intelligently answer, we first have to explain why it is misleading to rank Kentucky’s overall average scores for all students against other states. Frequent blog readers already know the answer, but it bears repeating for new readers.

Table 1 shows a comparison of Kentucky’s and Louisiana’s 2017 ACT composite scores by race with some related demographic data for the numbers of graduates in each racial group and the percentage of all graduates represented by each racial group.

Note that 100 percent of their graduates in both states took the ACT in 2017, so this is a reasonable comparison.

Table 1

Kentucky Vs. Louisiana for ACT Composite by Race 2017

The top line of data in Table 1 for “All Students” shows the overall average ACT Composite Score for both states for all 2017 high school graduates. Since this covers all students, the related percentage figure for both states is 100 percent, of course.

Notice that the Average ACT Composite Score for all students for Kentucky was 20.0 and for Louisiana it was only 19.5.

So, Kentucky’s education system performs better, right?


Notice that the relative performance picture changes rather dramatically when we look at the scores broken out by race. Except for blacks and Asian students, Kentucky trails ACT Composite Score performance in Louisiana, often by a rather large amount considering the ACT is a 36-point test.

In particular, note that Louisiana’s whites outscored Kentucky’s whites by 0.6 point, which is a notable difference on this test.

While you look at the data for white students, notice that even as of 2017 Kentucky’s school population remains heavily white, with 71 percent of all the Bluegrass State’s students coming from this one racial group. In Louisiana, by sharp comparison, whites don’t even make up the majority of graduates, totaling only 48 percent in 2017.

Also note that with the exception of the relatively small number of Asian graduates in both states, whites in both states score much higher than the other minority groups. Therein lies the key to this paradox of how Kentucky can look better when we only consider overall average scores but then that picture falls apart when we break the data out by race. Due to the demographic differences, when we look only at overall scores, we are comparing many whites in Kentucky to lower-scoring racial minority graduates in Louisiana. That artificially biases the results in Kentucky’s favor.

By the way, Kentucky’s racial mix is also very different from the overall national group of ACT-tested graduates in 2017, as Figure 1 shows.

Figure 1

Kentucky and National ACT Racial Demographics in 2017

If we only compare Kentucky’s overall average scores to those across the nation, we are matching a notable number of Kentucky white scores, 19 percent of them, to racial minority scores elsewhere. Since achievement gaps like those we see in Table 1 are a problem everywhere, that winds up giving Kentucky an unfair advantage in those comparisons.

So, to get a better idea about how Kentucky’s education system really compares to other states, we need to break the scores out by race. Because Kentucky is predominantly white, and all states have enough whites to report scores for this racial group, we focus on white scores.

When we talk about state comparisons using the ACT, there is another consideration, as well. Unlike in Kentucky, most states still don’t require all students to take the ACT. For example, in Maine in 2017 the ACT reports that only 8 percent of the graduates took the ACT. This isn’t a valid random sample of Maine students, either. We have no way to know if the Maine results represent mostly the very strongest or the weakest students. There is no way to tell.

Thus, we cannot intelligently compare a state like Kentucky, where 100 percent of the graduates were tested in 2017, to a state like Maine. In fact, the ACT, Inc. itself told us several years ago that they recommend not doing so, and ACT spokesperson Ed Colby provided similar cautions in a Courier-Journal article about ACT scores in 2015.

So, how does Kentucky compare? Click the “Read more” link to find out.

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How did Kentucky’s non-public school students do on the ACT in 2017?

The Bluegrass Institute is frequently asked about the performance of various non-public school students such as those going to private and parochial schools and those schooled at home. Unfortunately, that information is not directly available.

However, many years ago I realized that I could compute scores for the state’s non-public school graduates using scores and participation numbers for all students that the ACT, Inc. directly provides and the separate scores and participation numbers for public school students that currently come from the Kentucky Department of Education (and formerly were available from the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability).

So, I show the Kentucky non-public school graduates ACT data by year in Table 1.

Table 1

KY ACT Scores for Other Than Public School Students

Compare this to the public school only scores shown in Table 2.

Table 2

KY ACT Scores for Public School Students Only

As you look at these tables, please note there have been several changes in the ACT over the years that make it inaccurate to compare the scores across long periods of time.

One major change came in 2009. This was the first year that 100 percent of Kentucky’s public high school graduates took the ACT. Table 2 shows there was a major shift downward in the public school scores as many more weak students who never had planned to take the ACT suddenly were included in the public school mix. There is a white background break line on the tables to make this change in testing conditions for graduates in 2009 and later more evident.

A second change came in 2013 when the ACT for the first time averaged in scores from students who got more than the standard amount of time to test. Before 2013, such scores were not included in the overall state averages. There was some impact on the public school scores. However, non-public school scores in Table 1 don’t show any impacts, indicating not many non-public school students are using this option.

When you compare Table 1 to Table 2, you can see that the tested group in Kentucky’s non-public schools produce much higher ACT average scores in every subject area. For example, in ACT English the non-public school graduates in 2017 scored 4.7 points higher than the public school students did. This is a very large score difference on the ACT, which is only a 36-point maximum test. Score differences for the other ACT test subjects, while somewhat smaller, are still very large.

As you examine the tables, this strong difference in performance in favor of non-public schools has been present for a very long time in Kentucky, with one exceptional period starting around 1998. In that year there appears to have been a massive flight of students from the public schools in the state to the non-public system. That flight was accompanied by a dramatic drop in the non-public school graduates’ scores.

I have never seen any research on this interesting phenomenon, but 1998 was the year that the legislature threw out Kentucky’s first reform accountability system, the old KIRIS assessments. That action came about due to growing distrust regarding the obviously inflating KIRIS results. I suspect this dramatic event and the concern about public education performance behind it are related to the dramatic increase in Kentucky’s non-public school graduations in 1998.

By 1998, many parents were upset about the low performance of the public schools. For example, Table 2 shows the ACT Composite Score for public schools in Kentucky remained essentially flat, running either 19.9 or 20.0 from 1993 all the way to 2002. This flat performance could have been the trigger that motivated many parents to move their children. If so, the non-public school ACT score trends indicate those parents might have made the move to alternative schooling too late to help their children.

In any event, the rapid increase in non-public graduates in 1998 was associated with a notable decay in the non-public ACT averages as the non-public school graduate count soared by an astonishing 47 percent in just one year between 1997 and 1998.

Over time, the situation balanced out. For at least the past decade, the results for those non-public school graduates who take the ACT has been considerably better than the public school performance.

What we don’t know is what percentage of the non-public school graduates takes the ACT, though I suspect the non-public school participation rate is very high. Given the current, very large differences between non-public school and public school graduates’ ACT scores, even if some of the weakest non-public school students don’t take the ACT, it seems that Kentucky’s non-public schools do produce better results than the public school system.

more [Read more…]

ACT scores are out – Other voices on the gaps

The Washington Post wasted no time posting its reactions to the new ACT scores that came out today. The title of the article says it all:

“‘We didn’t know it was this bad’: New ACT scores show huge achievement gaps”

ACT scores are out – Kentucky’s public school gaps also are problem

As I wrote earlier today, new ACT reports for the high school graduating class of 2017 are now publicly released. There should be a lot of interest because this is the seventh year after Kentucky adopted the Common Core State Standards, which were supposed to dramatically improve college preparation.

Certainly, progress towards college readiness seems to have gone flat in Kentucky. Even the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) News Release about the new ACT scores says:

“(Kentucky Commissioner of Education Steven) Pruitt said this year’s flat ACT scores reinforce that the timing is right for Kentucky to take a serious look at its graduation requirements and move forward with a new accountability system that is designed to promote and hold schools and districts accountable for student achievement and significantly reduce achievement gaps (Underline for emphasis added).”

My earlier post looked at the white minus black achievement gaps for all Kentucky 2017 high school graduates combined: public, private and home school. Because there are not a lot of non-public school graduates in Kentucky, those overall scores pretty closely, but not perfectly, mirror what is happening in the public schools.

Unfortunately, public school only ACT results don’t come directly from the ACT, Inc. Public school only data is only found in the KDE’s News Release and that release does not include nearly as much information as can be found in the ACT, Inc.’s materials.

Still, we can look at the public school only white minus black achievement gap for the ACT Composite Score, which is presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1

ACT Composite Gaps in Kentucky to 2017 Public School Only

For comparison, the graph of the ACT Composite Scores for all students is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

ACT Composite Gaps in Kentucky to 2017

As you can see, since ACT changed its reporting system in 2013 (more on that is in the first blog), the gaps are somewhat smaller when we only look at the public school results, but this is mostly because the whites in public schools score notably lower than the whites in Kentucky’s non-public schools.

For example, in 2017 Figure 1 shows that whites in the state’s public schools scored only 20.3 on the ACT Composite but Figure 2 shows the overall white average was higher at 20.7.

Thus, the score for the non-public whites had to be higher, probably several points higher, than 20.7.

Unfortunately, counts of white and black graduates are not listed in KDE’s News Release 17-114 (ACT’s report does list that information for the overall student group); so, I can’t accurately calculate the actual non-public white scores for you.

Also note that the scores for the black public school graduates are slightly lower than the state’s overall ACT Composite Scores for blacks. Thus, for example, the score for black non-public school graduates in 2017 has to be higher than the overall average score of 17.0 for blacks shown in Figure 2.

Do notice that whether we look at Figure 1 or Figure 2, the trend in the white minus black ACT Composite Score achievement gap is pretty much the same. In both cases, the gap in 2017 is no better than in 2014.

So, while I can’t show you any breakouts of public school only gaps for the specific ACT academic areas of English, math, reading and science, I am pretty confident that the all student results shown in my earlier blog give a pretty good idea about what is happening in Kentucky’s public schools.

Also, note that the public school white ACT Composite scores have flat lined for three years now. That is a real problem, too.

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ACT scores are out – Kentucky’s white minus black achievement gaps continue to be a problem

The new ACT reports for the high school graduating class of 2017 have been publicly released, and there will be a lot to talk about concerning these important college readiness test results in the seventh year after Kentucky adopted the Common Core State Standards, which were supposed to dramatically improve college preparation.

Certainly, progress towards college readiness seems to have gone flat in Kentucky. Even the Kentucky Department of Education’s News Release about the new ACT scores says:

“(Kentucky Commissioner of Education Steven) Pruitt said this year’s flat ACT scores reinforce that the timing is right for Kentucky to take a serious look at its graduation requirements and move forward with a new accountability system that is designed to promote and hold schools and districts accountable for student achievement and significantly reduce achievement gaps (Underline for emphasis added).”

The department’s News Release emphasizes that racial achievement gaps are currently a hot concern in Kentucky. So, let’s look at the trends in the white minus black ACT achievement gaps from 2013 to the present. I only look back to 2013 because ACT changed its reporting format in that year, including for the first time scores for students who got more than the standard time to complete this college entrance test. As a result, the current data isn’t strictly comparable to years prior to 2013. Still, this covers the major portion of time that Common Core was really impacting Kentucky’s classrooms, as the state began Common Core-aligned testing in reading, writing and mathematics just one year prior in the 2011-12 school term.

Figure 1 shows how the overall ACT Composite Score trends look for all of Kentucky’s whites and blacks for high school graduates from public, private and home schools in the years of 2013 through 2017.

Figure 1

ACT Composite Gaps in Kentucky to 2017

As you can see, scores for both white and black students slowly increased over the past five years, but the achievement gap in 2017 has been basically flat, no better than it was back in 2014 (I highlighted the 2014 gap for emphasis).

Essentially, the ACT Composite Score achievement gap for whites versus blacks in the Bluegrass State hasn’t changed appreciably in half a decade of Common Core impacts in Kentucky.

Also note that the white scores look like they indeed are going flat. If that had not happened, the black gap trend would look even worse. We don’t want gaps closing only because white scores are staying stagnant.

I have similar graphs for the individual subjects tested by ACT, as well (English, Math, Reading and Science). Click the “Read more” link to see those.

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News release: Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government files complaint about House of Representatives’ secret pension meeting

BIPPS Logo_pickCOG LOGO(FRANKFORT, Ky.) — An open-meetings complaint was filed today by the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government in response to a closed meeting held last week by the Kentucky House of Representatives to discuss the commonwealth’s pension crisis.

The complaint notes the closed meeting “constituted a violation of KRS 61.810(1) which states that ‘[all] meetings of a quorum of the members of any public agency at which any public business is discussed or at which any action is taken by the agency, shall be public meetings, open to the public at all times.’”

None of the 13 exceptions allowing public agencies to hold a meeting of a quorum of its members behind closed doors appears valid in this situation, said Amye Bensenhaver, the open-government center’s director.

“There’s neither a general nor a specific exception to the Open Meetings Act under which discussion of pension reform falls,” Bensenhaver said.  “Even if there was, the leaders of the agency — House legislative leaders in this case — must publicly state the law and the exceptions allowing them to meet behind closed doors, which clearly didn’t occur.”

House Speaker Jeff Hoover told reporters following the session that the purpose of closing the doors was to allow lawmakers to question state budget Director John Chilton and PFM, the consultant evaluating the state’s retirement systems, “without the media there and to make it a more comfortable setting for them to ask questions.”

However, Bluegrass Institute president and CEO Jim Waters rejects such reasoning, calling it “totally unacceptable” when dealing with taxpayer funds and the public’s business.

“Taxpayers fret about a $40 billion-plus shortfall, thousands of state workers worry about their future and the entire retirement system teeters on the verge of insolvency, and the people elected to fix the problem want to do so in secret and in comfort?” Waters questioned. “Considering the commonwealth’s pension crisis is the worst in the nation and threatens funding for every other public service in Kentucky, such discussion should be the most uncomfortable this legislature ever conducts.”

Past rulings by the attorney general, which carry the force of law in Kentucky, rejected similar reasonings offered to justify previous closed-door meetings of the legislature, including two rulings in 1993 (93-OMD-63 and 93-OMD-64) in response to a proposal to discuss then-Gov. Brereton Jones’s proposed health-care reform.

The attorney general determined in those rulings that according to state law (KRS 61.805(2)(b)), the House of Representatives as a legislative body is a public agency and its meetings are subject to the Open Meetings Act.

“The legislature must hold itself to the same standard as it does other public agencies,” Waters said. “A primary purpose of Kentucky’s sunshine laws is so that citizens can see not only the final decision or vote but the discussion, debate and yes, even disagreement, that occurs along the way.”

The institute’s complaint notes that just because no vote was taken or final decision made does not alter the importance of giving citizens access to the discussion and all that occurred within it.

“The open meetings act is premised on the statement that the ‘formation of public policy is public business and shall not be conducted in secret,’” the complaint states.

Finally, the complaint notes: past attorney general rulings indicate claims that such secret meetings are permissible under the guise of being a “caucus” gathering don’t hold up.

Caucus meetings are meetings held by local, regional and state political parties to discuss policy stances, candidates and political strategies and appointees.

Language from the attorney general’s opinions in the 1993 decisions referenced above are equally applicable to the Kentucky legislature’s August 29 meeting behind closed doors: “Perhaps the meeting was originally intended to be some kind of caucus meeting but at least one of the media persons maintains that every member of the House was invited to attend the meeting regardless of party affiliation. This office does not know who specifically attended the meeting but if invitations were extended to all members, regardless of party affiliation, then, by definition, the meeting was not a caucus meeting.”

A copy of the complaint can be found here, including its recommendations that the House of Representatives’ leadership takes the following steps for “remedying this violation”:

  • Acknowledge that it violated KRS 61.810(1) in conducting a closed meeting of a quorum of its members at which public business was discussed.
  • Provide the public with a copy of any written record or audio or video recording of the closed session.
  • Issue a resolution committing to future compliance with the requirements of the open-meetings law.

For more information, please contact Amye Bensenhaver at or 502.330.1816.

An educator bemoans the deception in high school graduation rates

Writing in Education Week, Bernard Gassaway, a former New York City public schools teacher, principal, and superintendent adds his voice of discontent about the growing deception in high school graduation rates across the nation.

Too many Kentucky’s school systems are certainly playing this game by passing out thousands of “Hollow Diplomas” each year, which discrepancies between high school graduation rates and college and career ready rates and discrepancies between high school graduation rates and Algebra II End-of-Course Exam performance (Algebra II is a stipulated high school graduation requirement in Kentucky) make readily apparent.